FORT WORTH, Texas — In October 2019, Southside resident James Smith called the police for a wellness check on his neighbor, whose lights were on, and whose doors and windows were open during the early morning hours.
Fort Worth Police officer Aaron Dean has been charged with shooting and killing Atatiana Jefferson, who was up late playing video games with her nephew, after he arrived on the scene.
Critics of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office allege that Officer Dean, who was relieved of duty, is getting special treatment because he is a police officer. The wheels of justice, observers like Smith believe, move slower for a white police officer accused of murdering a Black woman. After the incident, he and others met with outgoing mayor Betsy Price.
“The mayor called it a roundtable meeting, and she was speaking of changes,” he said. “She said, ‘These changes are long-coming,’ and ‘We’ve taken a step, but have miles to go.’ I've got no problem with the miles to go. I just want to know, What's the speed limit?”
Though it has been a slow-moving case by most standards — the DA’s office still hasn’t set a date for trial — there is a hearing Wednesday on a motion filed by the defense. District Attorney Sharen Wilson advised the family of the motion but did not tell them its nature.
Grassroots social justice group Enough is Enough, one of the most prominent local protest and community action groups to emerge in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, is protesting in front of the courthouse Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. — the same time as the hearing.
The group’s co-founder, Kwame Osei, said the county’s entire process of investigating and now prosecuting Dean has been done out of public view. Not even Jefferson’s family knows what’s going on in the case, he said.
“We’re asking anyone that's available to come out to the courthouse and demand some transparency in this,” he said. “It's been very tight. I mean, they have a gag order, and it’s, like, ‘What else are they hiding?’ The family has no idea if aid was even rendered to Atatiana. They don't know anything. We're kind of in a waiting game.”
A spokesperson for the DA’s office said Dean’s trial, as with many others, has been delayed by COVID-19 precautions.
“We want justice for Atatiana Jefferson and all the victims of crime in Tarrant County who have had justice delayed because of the pandemic,’ said Anna Tinsley Williams, a communications officer for the county. “Only the judge sets the dates for trials and hearings.”
Osei, who is in weekly contact with Jefferson’s family, said Wilson’s office has been evasive and incommunicative with Jefferson’s family about the case. At one point, Osei said, Wilson told Jefferson’s sister that her family couldn’t request a meeting with the DA — that only her attorney could do that, and even then, the DA’s office was under no obligation to take the meeting.
“Sharen Wilson is supposed to be prosecuting on behalf of the family, but she isn't providing them any transparency,” he said. “So what’s really going on if you're not communicating anything to the family?”
According to Jefferson's family members, the first time they met Wilson, her first question to them was unrelated to the case.
“The very first time that Wilson met with the family, her first question was, ‘Why did your attorney call me a bigot?,’ ” Osei said. “It wasn’t, ‘Why did Aaron Dean murder your sister?’ Or, ‘How are we going to bring Aaron Dean to justice?’ You were more focused on you, Sharen.”
Smith, who has lived 40 years on the block where Jefferson was murdered, said he feels the scales of justice are tipping toward the police, as they historically have.
“I don't feel comfortable with the way that things are being handled,” he said. “I made a non-emergency phone call to check on my neighbors. But, once the incident happened, the city or [county] called it everything other than a wellness call. It was an ‘open structure call’ and it was ‘a burglary.’ I see the system leaning toward a protectionism of the police, in my opinion.”